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Art & Science

One object we do not see often in the Asian department at Oakridge is the Tibetan Thangka, an object which is simultaneously a work of art, science, and religion. Thangkas typically depict a religious figure from the Buddhist religion and were common educational tools used by Tibetan Buddhist monks during their travels. These were an easy and convenient teaching tool, as they were able to be rolled to save space during travels. 

Thangkas were meant to be used to keep records and to be used as a teaching tool. The central figure is meant to be the deity that ‘inhabits’ the painting. Typically, the central figure is surrounded by other, smaller, figures that would represent the attendants for the specific deity. While the configuration can change depending on the number of additional figures, usually the central figure is surrounded on all sides. 

The thangka that is being brought to auction this September 2020 features Je Tsongkhapa, a Tibetan religious philosopher who lived 1357-1419.1 During his life, he wrote many works focusing on Buddhism and Philosophy; some of these works survive to this day, including the most notable, Golden Garland of Eloquence. Tsongkhapa is identifiable by the pandit hat, the hand holding a lotus root, flaming sword of wisdom, and a wisdom sword resting on a lotus. (Fig. 1) Like other traditional thangkas, this piece is formed of three parts: a panel, typically made from cotton, with a picture; a mounting; and a silk cover. Most thangkas have a wooden dowel attached to the top and bottom of the mounting in order for the thangka to be able to hang. 


Figure 1. Lot 339, Thangka with 108 Figures, 17-18th Century, estimated at $2,500-3,500. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s Fall Fine Asian Art and Antiques: Session 1 on September 19, 2020.All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery.

The process for creating a thangka focuses less on art and more on a specific scientific formulae that must be followed. There is not room in the creative process for an artist’s imagination and individuality to come through. Instead, thangkas are created according to the mathematical principles of iconometry. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines iconometry as ‘the art of estimating the distance or size of an object by the use of an iconometer.’2 This practice has been perfected over the years, beginning between the 7th and 12th centuries in Tibet. 

Thangka iconometry is a set of measurements and proportions that must be used when depicting Buddha’s, Bodhisattvas, and both peaceful and wrathful deities. This process allows for many artists to work on one piece to create a uniform and lasting final product. The concept of iconometry has followed the making of thangkas for many years, and is still in practice today. (Fig. 2)

October 2020 thangka.jpg

Figure 2. Lot 90, Tibetan Thangka, Early 19th Century, estimated at $1,500-2,500. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s upcoming October 2020 sale. All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery.

This process begins with purification rituals and prayers said over the canvas before paint, made of natural pigments, can be applied.3 The entire creation process can take up to a year for a single thangka to be completed, and they are commonly displayed in houses, temples, and palaces. Historic thangkas can be seen in many museums around the globe, including the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art here in Washington, DC - or purchased at auction for a private collector to enjoy.

Literature Consulted:

[1] Sparham, Gareth. “Tsongkhapa.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, July 10, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/tsongkhapa/.

[2] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “iconometry,” accessed July 24, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iconometry.

[3] Tretyakov Gallery Magazine. “The Origins of Thangka Painting.” The Origins of Thangka Painting | The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, May 15, 2015. https://www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/special-issue-art-buddhism/origins-thangka-painting.


About the Author

Alison Eubanks joined Oakridge in the fall of 2019. She received her Master's degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester, during which time she developed practical experience working with historic collections at the Hampton Court Palaces in England.  

Alison Eubanks

Thu, Sep 3, 2020 3:48 PM

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